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The Ashes: Australian masculinity reborn amid English tumult

After losing three Ashes series on the bounce and following much soul-searching about the decline of its national sporting prowess, Australia is giving England a pounding in the cricket. For many, all…

Australia’s cricketing mojo has returned in this Ashes series. While effective, their methods have not always been pretty. AAP/Dave Hunt

After losing three Ashes series on the bounce and following much soul-searching about the decline of its national sporting prowess, Australia is giving England a pounding in the cricket. For many, all is right again with the world.

Recently, I sat at Melbourne Airport as Australia’s resurgent fast bowler Mitchell Johnson – the butt of some cruel humour by visiting Barmy Army fans during his erratic, neurotic last home series - terrorised the English batsmen. Many people were watching the cricket on screen, with one fellow traveller loudly proclaiming:

There is no greater pleasure than sticking it to the Poms in the cricket!

There were several murmurs of approval.

Such visceral responses to sporting contests with the former Mother Country are still common, despite Australia coming of age many decades ago.

In the dark days of the last Ashes series in England earlier this year, I wrote in The Conversation about despondent Australians and the triumphalist English, and noted then how:

Claiming as one’s own the best individuals and teams as measured by frequently narrow, even fluky victories in sport events enables ready extrapolation to other, more elusive achievements and characteristics.

The tables have indeed turned since. That series, ultimately won 3-0 by England, was misleading in its conclusiveness, caught up as it was in consecutive Australian failures against India and England, and so lending itself easily to a narrative of miserable failure.

As is often the case, the rub of the green – including the turn of the coin toss and the ill-timed opening of the skies – was against the losing team.

But the simple suggestion that a predictable reversal of fortune has occurred for two competitively close teams is too dull and lacking in drama for any media-dependent sport. Hence the search for the deeper explanation and meaning behind Australia’s Ashes renaissance.

The dominant thesis is that the Australian team has reverted to “blokey” type in aggressively inducing the mental disintegration of its opponents. An early sign of this explanation was to be found in the lampooning of England’s detailed, esoteric dietary demands.

Expecting breakfasts of “probiotic yogurt with separate bowl of fresh berries and agave nectar or honey” and lunches of “mung bean curry with spinach” was interpreted not as a sign of meticulous English planning, but as the imperious expectations of prima donna Pommy toffs.

Here the rhetorical space was opened for the return of old-style Australian cricket masculinity as represented by its no-airs-and-graces coach Darren “Boof” Lehmann and embodied in the saturnine Mitchell Johnson, who seems to be channelling his champion predecessor Dennis Lillee with his intimidatory bowling and extravagant moustache.

This overt aggression – lost for a time under the previous technocratic, high-performance management regime of player rotation and self-reflective player homework – had returned in all its animalistic hirsuteness. It found expression not just in Johnson’s bouncers and death stares and in the clubbed sixes of David Warner, but in the vigorous sledging for which Australia had been previously renowned.

Mustachioed Mitchell Johnson has returned to form, channeling 1970s Australian cricket hero Dennis Lillee. AAP/Dave Hunt

When captain Michael Clarke, who has been treated with deep suspicion by the guardians of old-style Australian maleness, was caught by an errantly live Channel Nine microphone swearing and physically threatening by proxy the voluble England fast bowler Jimmy Anderson, it became clear that the re-instatement of the argy bargy was coming from the top.

The departure from the tour on account of a long-term stress-related illness by Jonathan Trott was not officially a direct result of the sledging on the pitch and at a Warner media conference, but there were some who sotto voce described it as tactical vindication.

There has also been much praise of the metaphorical – and perhaps even physical – “return of the biff” in the tabloids, TV sport commentary and social media.

But the reinstatement of the take-no-prisoners hairiness of Australia’s male cricketers was seen by some as resonating well beyond the enclosed green swards of the nation’s cricket grounds. For example, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen hailed the return of “good old-fashioned sledging” that is “celebrated as part of the culture” and a “throwback to the good old days” before widespread infection with the “PC [political correctness] virus”.

Albrechtsen presents cricket as a “bastion of effrontery where cheeky banter has not yet been banished as bullying”. But what is happening on the pitch is clearly rather more than a witty exchange of bon mots. It is perhaps, as European sociologists Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning have proposed, a case of increasingly “civilised” societies outsourcing violence in socially approved form to the sporting field.

If these very specific arrangements of the professional cricket match were extended across the nation, the kind of Australia that it represents – macho, malicious and merciless – would soon lose its shine for most of its people.

Australia’s cricketing mojo has returned. For now. Its methods have not been pretty, but they have been pretty effective in this Ashes series, assisted by a disoriented far-from-home opponent. The wheel will turn again in time, and with it the distribution of hubris and ignominy.

All that, though, is for another day, and those Australians who care can bask temporarily in their cricket team’s reflected glory. But if the nation is looking in its imaginary mirror for a sign of its most desirable image of the future, it will not find it in the scowling furry visage of a reborn 1970s cricket masculine archetype.

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email

    I love the article, but gee, can't you just let us have one day in the afterglow?

  2. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    It's true that the last Ashes series was closer than the 3-0 result would suggest. Rain saved England twice, and one match was decided by only 14 runs. It could just as easily have been a 3-2 victory to Australia.

    But then again, just because we have won the first two tests easily this time around is no reason to think the series is over. Ask the Kiwi America's Cup team how quickly things can turn around.

    Come back after Perth and let's see how things are then.

  3. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "But if the nation is looking in its imaginary mirror for a sign of its most desirable image of the future"
    It isn't. Real people and real nations do not do this. Only neomarxist post-structuralist academics.

    1. Christopher Lloyd


      In reply to Andy Cameron

      That's right. Nations are imaginary constructions not actors with organic consciousness and agency. And modern nations are far less homogenous than earlier times. A country like Australia is full of dissipative, schismatic forces, most of which take no interest in cricket. Indeed, I would say Australia is one of the least nationalistic and cohesive societies, which I like. We don't much go in for flag waving and solemn expressions of national pride. Only in certain sporting events and then…

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    2. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Christopher Lloyd

      Thanks Christopher, I don't disagree. The nation isn't a knowing subject as such, but it is constantly represented in those terms. So I'm interested in what some people (including politicians and media commentators) project onto the nation through sports such as cricket.

  4. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    I suppose cricket is always going to have players energy focussed in different ways to Aussie rules or our rugby codes where more than a handful of players can be contesting ball posession and there is constant physicality and though sledging will still occur, a point to the scoreboard by a leading team player is often sufficient retort.
    On the other hand with often more climatic heat to emphasise the mad dogs and Englishmen out in the mid day sun, it is no small wonder that some players may seek…

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  5. terry lockwood

    maths/media/music/drama teacher

    I'll admit to a slight extra spring in the step right now (seriously absent after supporting the Melbourne Footy Club this year).
    It seems to me no less logical than corporations who purchase an association with successful football teams in exchange for reflected glory and positive exposure (advertising types call this 'image transfer' apparently).

    And after all, it is just entertainment. Many films or Broadway shows are lifted by a change of Director even if none of them have been named 'Boof'. The big moustache has been employed in many a pantomime to ensure we all know who the baddie is.

    Let's not overwork all this. I know it's only bat and ball but I like it.

    1. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to terry lockwood

      Thanks Terry, I agree that there is the pleasure of the game for cricket lovers (of which I am one) and also the quite elaborate cultural constructions that many people put on it, including those who don't like cricket! That's why I see the sport world as an inverted pyramid, with a massive weight bearing down on fleeting movements and moments both designed and accidental.

  6. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    Like many, I've always enjoyed the banter that goes with cricket, but not so the more immature interchanges that seems to be overtaking the sport at the Ashes level. And I wonder (without conclusion) if that will be a turn-off for the majority.

    But then, we have to accept that cricket as a sport is in a state of decline internationally and nationally, in relation to other sports, and is likely to slump further as all those older adherents eventually die off – those who followed the game during its heyday decades.

    Not wishing to panic anyone over the future of this fine sporting contest, but it could be that hard core sledging is providing renewed entertainment and media focus on a game that is probably on the skids. It may work, at least for a while.

    Here we are discussing cricket... but not about bowling or batting.

    1. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Chris Harries

      Thanks Chris. I like cricket banter too. It's meant to be humorous, good-natured etc. if it is to be called 'banter'. I'm amused - if not disturbed - by some commentators treating expletive-deleted abuse and threats as just so much jocular banter.

  7. Max Walsh

    Education Consultant/Adviser

    Good old-fashioned "put-him-off-his game" banter/sledging has been part of my experience playing sport in Australia for as long as I can remember.
    I have lost count of the times that snide comments were made by my playing companions or opponents about "skinny matchsticks for legs" as I addressed the ball on the tee in golf; comments about the wind as I prepared to serve in tennis; "chewy on your boot" as I prepared to kick for goal in football etc. Cricket is highlighted because of the all-intrusive stump mikes etc that allow us to hear comments live. Before stump-cam or stump-mike we relied on anecdotes passed on by retired blokes in either autobiographies or at the dreaded "celebrity sports gatherings".
    I would prefer not to hear the grunts or the on-field comments during cricket telecasts. I prefer the hoary old "What happens on the field stays on the field". Nobody seems to believe that "Sticks and stones ...." any more.

  8. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    One of the greatest lines the legendary D-Generation came up with: "You are the moustache on the Australian batsman of desire".

  9. Tanya Maynard

    logged in via Facebook

    What absolute rubbish: the suggestion that somehow Mitchell Johnson's moustache is sufficient grounds to justify disparagement of the entire culture? Dr Rowe, I would suggest you consider the possibility that Johnson is wearing the "mo" wryly.

    1. David Rowe

      Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Tanya Maynard

      Thanks Tanya. I'm not disparaging a whole culture via Mitchell Johnson's moustache nor oblivious to its touch of visual irony. But I do think that it is worthwhile reflecting on how the 70s style revival and accompanying aggressive sledging and demeanour is being read by some as signifying a return to their preferred mode of outmoded masculinity.